What We Talk About When We Talk About Service

by Katie Daniels

 

Over spring break, I accidentally became a minor celebrity in southwestern Virginia. A local news station heard about our group, 12 BC students with the Appalachia Volunteers program spending our spring breaks in the tiny mountain town of Galax, Virginia. Like many of our parents and friends, the reporter wanted to know why we had “given up” our break to volunteer.

 

 

I didn’t mind answering a few questions for the reporter, unaware that the people of Galax actually watched their local news station. If I had known, I would have brushed my hair. For the rest of the week, old women patted my back and told me I did a real good job on the T.V. A teacher pointed me out to her kindergarten class. The church choir stopped mid-song to congratulate our group on our interview.

 

This small town fame was more than we deserved. After all, we were just a group of college kids who served in Galax for a week. During our short stay in town, we lived alongside the real servants: local men and women who minister to the hurting in their town every day. They do the real service, and they do it without T.V. cameras.

 

I’ve gone on two service trips with Appa now; the first to McKee, Kentucky, and the second to Galax. Like many first time volunteers, I came back from Kentucky desperate to do more. But after my second service trip, this time to Galax, my heart still felt restless. Over 400 kids volunteer each year through the Appa program, and they do a lot of good. But no program, certainly one that only lasts a week, can fix all the injustices we encounter.

 

Even Mother Teresa recognized this limitation and said, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean.” As volunteers, we’re bound by time, age, and ability. It’s from within this narrow frame that we have to channel our efforts to do good. I suppose it’s liberating in a way; it’s also frustrating as hell.

 

When the reporter asked me why I wanted to come to Galax, he was really asking the same question I’d been asking myself since I signed up for Appa a second time. “Why do you really want to serve?” What brought me back to Appa a second time? Because if you really want to claim that your service trip changed you, you can’t be comfortable with the life you lived before. You want to keep doing.

 

This hope—the hope that you can do something good for someone, even if you can’t see the effects—is what Father James Martin calls “active waiting.” This hope knows that “even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work.” I like to think of hope as an active virtue. It acknowledges that, even as we trust God to work in ways we can’t see, we can still try to help our brothers and sisters while we wait, in our imperfect and limited way. I suppose that is the most honest answer to the reporter’s question, “why do you really want to serve?”

 

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